There’s nothing in my life I’m enjoying more right now than Grimes. Her new album is one of the best things I’ve heard in years, and the more I listen, the more complex and wonderful it becomes. The tunes I thought were just dancefloor tracks proliferate with meanings I hadn’t even considered; the contrast between aesthetics and sounds creates something totally new – a space where women can be ‘girly’ and still aggressive, effeminate and still powerful.
Art Angels has the same aesthetic as a kitsch anime horror movie. The twisted doll on its cover, emerging from a tumorous trunk of a neck, cries blood. In the video for ‘Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream’, Grimes-as-angel but with Marilyn Manson contact lenses (and later Grimes-as-Georgian-aristocrat) cannibalises a corpse, drenched nightmarishly in blood. The whole thing seems designed to unsettle ideas of femininity – to offer them up and then destroy them, giving no explanation, just fragments of images. The video for ‘Kill v Maim’ does something similar, following a slightly manic Grimes and her dancers, all masked up and gothic and bloody and angular, pulling hypermasc poses even as they squeak their way through the high-pitched sections of the song.
Grimes is not the first female artist to play with S&M and violence in her videos, or to whip out vampire-fantasy imagery as a way of making her stuff edgy. For me that’s just fluff unless the music does something interesting too. I think Art Angels does.
My last few weeks have been soundtracked almost exclusively by ‘Kill v Maim’, which is one of those tracks which initially sounds like basic club music – repetitive, bassy, beaty with a hard, catchy chorus. Its catchiness makes it listenable, Grimes’ delivery so perfectly fuck-you-feminine that it’s badass from the off. But when you start listening to the lyrics, something more complicated is going on. Unlike other songs with straight-forward fuck-you vibes and lyrics, which either tend to be straight-forward affirmation of women’s power or songs about power in sexiness, Grimes goes for something more complex. The lyrics are mostly fragments, little semantic nods to fighting, war, aggression and masculinity. She seems to be affirming a powerful masculine ‘self’, an identity defined by relentless partying, violence and power – a toxic freedom to cause pain, except (and here’s where it gets interesting for me) wracked by self-doubt.
“I got in a fight, I was indisposed;
I was in spite all the wicked prose,
But I’m only a man, and I do what I can.
I got friends in high places,
I get out for free,
I got in a fight but they don’t know me –
‘Cause I’m only a man
And I do what I can.”
That “I’m only a man, and I do what I can” forms the backbone of the verses, and is sung in a lamenting tone which contrasts with the self-assuredness of her voice in the chorus. She isn’t, in any simple sense, a ‘man’. So whose identity is she claiming here? What effect does singing ‘I’m only a man’ in such a feminine way have on the listener and their perceptions of gender? Imagining Grimes acting out this indisputably masculine identity highlights its attractions, but also its corruptness and recklessness.
The doubt in ‘Kill v Maim’ is palpable, and keeps cropping up. Despite doubt, the song surges on, like when you’re driving fast in one direction, hurtling through space and time, and then you question if you’re going the wrong way. There are 30 seconds in the middle of the song which floor me every time I hear them (2:21 to 2:51). After all the power and violence of the song so far, nagging doubt finds a more overt voice – the song quietens down, retaining its sense of anticipation, but losing some of its texture, and she sings:
“Oh, the fire it’s all right
([whispers] Cause we can make ’em all go crazy,
We can make ’em wanna die.)
Oh, the fire it’s all right
The people touch it;
I can’t touch it
Even though it’s mine.”
These lines resist easy interpretation, but put into music, they flourish into quite deep emotional comprehensibility. That first ‘oh’ is tension, anticipation. Imagine the power of knowing you could drive people mad, hold life or death in your hands. Well, we all could, and do. Every kitchen has knives; every person has a voice with which they can attack, undermine, deceive – but we don’t generally use them, bound by moral codes and fear. ‘Kill v Maim’ as a title asks you to consider how you could hurt others; which methods would be better. This is the tension of being alive, if you unleash it: we each have destructive agency that we suppress.
The beat, the heart of the song, carries the fear and excitement forward, the background synth which slips down a semitone at the end of each second line a reminder of the doubt, the potential for a complete unravelling of our identities and choices into destruction. The beat forces its way back in, heightening the tension, and then, just as we’re hearing her most intimate admission – that she can’t shape and control her own power – the chorus comes back in – “OH EY, OH NO WE AIN’T, OH WAIT, OH NO WE AIN’T”, so certain, so assured – an unquestioning negation of former doubts.
Here’s where I appropriate the song for me. Listening hard to ‘Kill v Maim’ has made me explore the destructive tendency in myself. When we playfully talk about ‘smashing’ things in political discourse, we are talking about the productive power of destruction, and that’s where ‘Kill v Maim’ has entered into my life over the last few weeks.
I’ve been involved in a bit of feminist organising against sexism which has swallowed up the last month or so, and pulled me back and forth from emotional extremes at a terrifying pace. ‘Kill v Maim’ has been on hand to help me order the complex web of emotions I’ve been feeling about the process. Every time I hear the gentle downward cascade of “I did something bad. Maybe I was wrong”, I’ve resonated with sympathy – how can we ever be sure we’re in the right? – but then the return to aggression has reminded me that I am, I am right, and he’s wrong.
Change and struggle are always ongoing processes. Like ‘Kill v Maim’ – like Art Angels as a whole – social change is gradual and tense and contradictory, and there is no security in certainty. But the tension and juxtaposition of ideas and emotions is part of the journey towards liberation, and, in fact, insofar as they help you understand what’s wrong with the world and how to improve it, those tensions are part of the emancipatory process. They force you to debate with yourself, to challenge others, and every so often grasp at what’s right – what feels right.
I’m all for Grimes’ fuck-you-femininity if it leads to feeling like ‘Venus Fly’ – powerful, and as Grimes put it, “too scary to objectify”. I wish I could thank her for being with me through the struggle. Keep fighting, sisters.